Pictured- Kitty Genovese
“Dear God, what have we become?”
-Reaction to Kitty Genovese case, recorded in 1964
I have heard more than one Real Life Superhero talk about the story of Kitty Genovese, a woman violently stabbed to death while her neighbors took no action. The incident led to the coining of the terms “Genovese Syndrome” and “bystander effect.” Tomorrow marks the anniversary of her death, and I know the story is on the minds of several RLSH(1).
RLSH point out that it is this sort of apathy toward our neighbors that they are trying to personally combat.
On March 13, 1964 Catherine “Kitty” Genovese had returned to her apartment building after finishing the night as bar manager of Ev’s 11th hour sports bar, at 3:20AM. She noticed a man at the far end of the parking lot. She nervously headed down the street, heading to a police call box.
The man was later identified as Winston Moseley, a rapist who had already murdered two women. Mosley chased Genovese down the street and stabbed her.
“Oh my God, he stabbed me! Please help me!” Genovese screamed. A man opened his window.
“Let that girl alone!” He yelled. Moseley shrugged and walked away. Genovese then tried to make her way back towards the parking lot, around the building toward her apartment door. Moseley appeared around the corner and attacked Genovese again, and Genovese cried out for help. Windows lit up and Moseley got in his car and drove away.
Genovese made it around the corner and collapsed in one of the stairwells in her building. Moseley then returned to attack her for a third time, finding her and stabbing her fatally on the stairwell. He raped her and stole about 49 dollars from her wallet.
In his confession, Moseley told police the motive of his attack was simply to “kill a woman.”
A witness finally called at 3:50AM. Police found that the witness who called was one of 38 witnesses to the incident. None of the other 37 had called the police during that terrifying half hour and didn’t speak to police until questioned in the following days. From a 1964 New York Times report:
“It was not until 2 weeks later that Catherine Genovese, known as Kitty, returned in death to cry the city awake.
Even then it was not her life or her dying that froze the city, but the witnessing of her murder-the choking fact that thirty-eight of her neighbors had seen her stabbed or heard her cries, and that not one of them, during that hideous half-hour, had lifted the telephone in the safety of his own apartment to call the police and try to save her life.”
Among the apathetic answers witnesses gave for not calling police from the safety of their own homes were “I was tired,” “We were afraid” (although when pressed, they couldn’t explain what they were afraid of) and several simply said “I don’t know” and “I didn’t want to get involved.”
The story generated a lot of outrage and disbelief. It was hard to accept the fact that 38 people had sat on their hands while a screaming woman was being stalked and stabbed below their windows.
The story was broke a couple weeks after the event, when a police chief told a New York Times editor about the 38 witnesses over lunch.
“The police were able to piece together what happened –and captured the suspect-because the residents furnished all the information when detectives rang doorbells during the days following the slaying.
‘But why didn’t someone call us that night?’ (Lieutenant Jacobs) asked unbelievably.
Some facts of this story were disputed in later years, alleging that the New York Times sensationalized parts of it. Because of the lay outs of the buildings, no one could see the entirety of the attack, and many couldn’t see it at all. It was a cold night, so through the closed windows, many thought it was a “drunken argument” or a “lover’s quarrel.”
I’m not going to get into debunking parts of the story here. The fact is, several people did see or hear something, and on that night mankind failed Kitty Genovese.
1. Zetaman has pointed out that many RLSH may feel an affinity to this story because it is part of the storyline of Watchmen. In a flashback, Rorschach recalls how he had a job as a youth in a garment factory. Kitty Genovese places a special order for a mod style, ink blot shifting dress. After he learns of her murder, he uses the dress fabric for his mask.
Thirty-Eight Witnesses, by A.M. Rosenthal, 1964
Kitty, 40 Years Later, by Jim Rasenberger, New York Times, February 8, 2004
The Kitty Genovese Murder, by Mark Gado,truTV.com
Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons